The next morning I reluctantly slipped the white t-shirt over my head, which I had paid too much money for in a country where prices have sky-rocketed in the two years since I last visited. On this day, one and a half-million people, mostly clad in white shirts, would make a pilgrimage to cemeteries, the eternal homes of Israel’s fallen soldiers. My friend Mira made this yearly trip to Tel-Aviv’s largest military cemetery to remember an old flame who was killed almost thirty years earlier. Joining her at his gravesite would be an old gang of baby-boomer friends, including one who had served in his unit. Some were grey, one with pot-belly and thinning grey hair gathered in ponytail, looking more like a Hell’s Angel than the successful businessman he had become; all had become successful professionals,….all, except for the one buried under a beautiful green succulent garden, topped with a headstone of earthen stone, chiseled in Hebrew. All I could recognize was the number 24, the age at which his future had been sliced. The ages on most of the headstones I viewed were no older than “19…” younger than my daughter, so young in my eyes.
Under a late-morning canopy of dazzling sunshine and growing heat, where soldiers handed out fresh flowers and bottles of water, thousands of people flowed like a sea, escorted to a loved one’s grave. No soldier is alone in death. For the fallen who had no one, an attempt is made to bring someone from their unit to bear witness. Otherwise, a soldier is assigned to be present at the grave. This is a mixed neighborhood of rich and poor; Sfardim and Ashkenzim; Jews, religious and secular; Christians, and Muslims; Arabs, Bedouins; gay and straight; black, white, and everything inbetween. Rank is irrelevant. My friend’s old boyfriend is buried next to a former chief of staff, who died in 1954.
The cemetery looked like a terraced garden of fresh flowers—majenta bougenvilla, scarlet roses, pink azaleas, all plentiful in Israel’s virgin spring. The crowd was as diverse as those they came to remember. A step below me, a weather grandmother stood slightly apart from her adult children, focused on the grave before her. Her young grandson, sporting peus (sidecurls), fringes peeking out from the bottom of his shirt, sat on the edge of the stone, playing with an I-Phone. I could not keep my eyes off an olive-skinned woman behind and to my left, a long-black braid resting against her black dress, her lips continually moving in prayers from a small black-covered book she never let go of.
At precisely 11 a.m. the sirens blared again throughout the country. All stood silently; some tearful, others blank. I was overcome. The ceremony began. A recitation of speeches by religious and secular dignitaries. All were about grief. None mentioned politics. All spoke of the price this country has paid for its existence. Nathan Alterman wrote a poem describing Israel as a “silver platter” given to us. He was not speaking of riches that were there for the taking. This was the silver platter.